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From Gond's own country

Jangarh Singh Shyam, the gifted tribal artist, took his life in Tokomachi, Japan. His brilliant serigraphs will be on show from March 20.

JANGARH Singh Shyam. The name brings tears to the eyes of those who appreciate folk art within a contemporary context. He was the Gond tribal youth from the Narmada valley in Madhya Pradesh, whose brilliant wall paintings caught the eye of the legendary J. Swaminathan (good old Swami for those who knew and loved him), Director of Bharat Bhavan, who brought him to the Roopanker Museum in Bhopal. Jangarh's works were given pride of place alongside the best urban creations, for Swami rated them as no less deserving.

The young artist, who married Nankusia for love when they were both just 13, went on to leave a permanent impression on the discerning Indian retina. While his village of Patangarh was immersed in its mahua-hazed, ritual-centric existence, Jangarh worked at the printmaking department in Bhopal. In Delhi, Jyotindra Jain, Director, Craft Museum, curated a 1998 five-artist, folk-tribal art show that included his talent — the multi-hued, dot-bright splendours of tribal gods, fantastical birds, anthill-covered alligators, and long-snouted crabs.

But the gods, often prematurely, tend to claim those they love best. At 37, the timid Jangarh had made inroads into the `civilised' world — as far away as Kolkata, Tokyo, and Paris. Whether at the Surajkund Mela or the Pompidou Centre, he blazed a trail of colour and form. No wonder his admirers were stunned when he took his own life during a prolonged stint at the Mithila Museum at Niigata, Japan, in July 2001.

Jangarh was hailed as the brightest of Indian adivasi artists;

Bangalore will have the privilege of sharing Jangarh's brilliant serigraphs at the Right Lines Gallery from March 20 to April 3, in a show initiated by artist Seema Sathyu. His creativity will hang alongside acrylic-on-canvas birds, beasts and fantasies by Nankusia, who attended the international Khoj workshop at the Venkatappa Art Gallery in December 2003. Her delicate, detailed work drew appreciation from many, including a Japanese artist who bought a Nankusia original as a memento.

Jangarh's work towered above mere souvenirs at the time of his demise. Though the Japanese museum paid him an honorarium of Rs. 12,000 per month, his paintings fetched double that amount in the home market. Swami, proud that he had instilled self-confidence in over 500 adivasi artists, recalled a time when their picturesque work sold for a mere Rs. 5. "Do you know, we have even been accused of spoiling tribal artists by getting them money for their work? Why should we so-called `modern' artists get paid, then?" he raged.

In a piece by Mark Tully, then BBC correspondent, Jangarh recalled how he had once carried baskets of mud on his head for road construction, sleeping under the trees during summer nights. As the splotches disappeared from his self-taught paintings, Jangarh was hailed as an original who first painted the Gond tribal gods. "What happened was that our people used geometric patterns to represent the gods. But then I used to see people when the gods took possession of them and that was how I got an idea of what the gods looked like," he explained.

The artists' family in the foreground.

Patangarh, strangely enough, was the village where British anthropologist Verrier Elwin, who adopted India as his home, married a Gond woman and settled down. That's where Jangarh first learnt to paint on walls, imitating his eldest brother. Hundreds of walls later, a young urban artist from Bhopal told Swami of the 17-year-old's talent. And the rest is a far cry from a folk tale.

Hailed as the brightest of India's adivasi artists, Jangarh was awarded Madhya Pradesh Government's highest Shikhar Samman in 1986. Who knows how his tale might have turned if fate and exploitative commercialism had not intervened? But for now, we can pay him the tribute of exulting in his brilliant serigraphs in town.

(Right Lines Gallery, 43, 80 Feet Road, HAL II Stage, Bangalore 560 075. Phone: 25272828/ 25292658)


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